Some First Impressions of Marquette’s Next Leader

By Bill Henk — Trust me when I tell you that August 31, 2010, will go down as a signature day in the annals of Marquette history.  That’s because it marks the naming of our institution’s 23rd President, Father Scott Pilarz, S.J.

To be honest, I didn’t see the announcement of a successor to our venerable Father Wild coming quite so soon.  I expected it to occur later in the fall.  The timing is even better, though, in that it will provide Father Pilarz even more time to learn about the university before starting next summer.

Not Your Ordinary Day

As for me, the last date of the eighth month started out pretty much like any other work day for me — although I somehow didn’t have any formal on-campus appointments scheduled.  With no apparent reason to dress up, I seriously considered wearing a polo shirt, shorts, and cross-trainers to the office.  But for some unknown reason, I wore a dress shirt and tie instead.

Little did I know that I’d enjoy the opportunity to meet our university’s next president that very afternoon.  Let’s face it, showing up to meet my next top boss looking like a tennis match awaited would have amounted to a double foot fault at match point.  Thankfully I appeared presentable.

After all, the appointment of a president at an educational institution carries enormous implications.  This one individual will literally shape the future of her/his college or university more than anyone or anything else.   So I thought you might want to know my initial impressions of the leader who will steward Marquette in the years to come.

A Special Invitation and First Meeting

Around noon, the University Leadership Council (which includes the Provost, the Senior Vice-President, the academic deans, all of the other VP’s, and a few other very key folks)  received an invitation to meet Fr. Pilarz at 3:00 in our new Zilber Hall.  Even on such short notice,  almost everyone made it.  Although our first reason to attend centered on duty, believe me when I tell you that curiosity served as a major  incentive for our busy university leaders to clear their schedules.

The meeting began with Father Wild making some warm and gracious welcoming remarks.   Clearly the choice of Father Pilarz delighted our current President who went on to share some interesting and flattering background on his successor and then turned the floor over to him.

Moments like this one carry their share of eagerness and anxiety for all parties concerned.  Fr. Pilarz seemed a little nervous at first, but quickly hit his stride.  Before a minute had passed, a collective sigh of relief fell over the room.  We had ourselves a winner, and everybody knew it.

Fr. Pilarz’s opening remarks carried a serious tone of appreciation and modesty, and as he talked, his substantial knowledge of Marquette, including many of our opportunities and challenges, came to light.   He had obviously been very attentive as a Trustee for the past year and had otherwise “done his homework.”  In short, Father Pilarz struck me as being … well … presidential!

When he finished, we were asked if there were any questions.  Not surprisingly, an awkward pause hung there as we waited for the ice to be broken by the always difficult first ask.   But once that beginning question surfaced, the give and take between our next president and the group of MU leaders just flowed.

Some Engaging Story Telling

Fr. Pilarz told some great stories about the relationship with his nephew, the unusual way he became president of the University of Scranton, and about his beloved bulldog.  He also shared how his brother-in-law was more smitten with Marquette basketball than the fact that he’d be the President.

But his best story revolved around an “undercover” trip he made to Marquette as part of his discovery process.  In civilian clothes and introduced under an assumed name, he interacted with a marvelous student who turned out to be instrumental in his decision to accept our job.  Apparently her enthusiasm, intellect, and grasp of mission blew him away as she recounted her transformational Marquette experience.

As the story goes, she offered to connect him with others at the university, and he told her that he had to decline, because he was here to explore a confidential employment opportunity.  When she asked  him what job he was considering, he finally had to reveal, to her utter amazement, that it was “The President!”

So, What Did I Think?

Let me sum up by telling you the adjectives that come to mind for me after meeting Father Pilarz.  I found him to be smart, articulate, passionate, humble, grounded, respectful, skilled, scholarly, caring, earnest, funny, inspiring, and faith-filled.  There is no mistaking the fact that he’s a Jesuit and that academics matter deeply to him.

OK, I know this portrayal must seem like the old “buttering up” routine on steroids.  But these words honestly capture how my 50 minutes or so of being in Fr. Pilarz’s presence left me feeling.  And I’m not alone in my assessment.  Just check out the lead story in the September 5th jsonline by clicking here.

For what it’s worth, my first impressions of people typically hit the mark dead on.  It’s downright uncanny.    But if you think I’m naive, hopelessly hopeful, or just given to fawning, take a look at the first video link below, and judge for yourself.

Only time will tell if Father Pilarz does indeed embody those traits, but I’d bet on it.    The bottom line is that he’ll need to measure up in the end, because as he’s noted sincerely himself, his predecessor — the 22nd President of Marquette University — ranks as a very tough act to follow.


Related Video Links:

To get your own feel for Fr. Pilarz, you can click here to see a video that features him.  At that link there is plenty of additional information available about the President-elect as well as the search that brought him to Marquette.

And if you’d like to see his introduction to the media by MU Board of Trustees Chair, Darren Jackson, click here.


2 Responses to “Some First Impressions of Marquette’s Next Leader”

  1. 1 Andy Hunt September 8, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Another fantastic blog post, thank you for sharing such valuable and interesting information about Fr. Pilarz. Wishing him the best of luck and God Bless him as our new leader at MU.


    • 2 billhenk September 8, 2010 at 8:22 am

      Thanks for commenting, Andy. I felt awkward in gushing about Fr. Pilarz, but my instincts tell me that he is the real deal. From where I sit, the future of Marquette University rests in very capable hands.


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